ORONO, Maine — On the heels of a 3-17-3 finish to the 2008-2009 season, the University of Maine men’s hockey team struggled to a 1-5 start this season.
But the Black Bears, with anywhere from 12-14 freshmen and sophomores in their lineup, have rebounded dramatically, going 7-2-1 in their last 10, including a current four-game winning streak and five-game unbeaten skein.
The Bears are in third place in Hockey East with a 6-4-1 record. Maine went just 7-17-3 in Hockey East last year.
“We’re working a lot harder,” said senior center David deKastrozza. “ We got off to a slow start but we still knew we had a good team and that we could do something special this year. We just started making it happen.”
“It has been a full team effort every night,” said junior center and captain Tanner House. “During the week, we’re all on the same page in practice. We re-focused on defense early in the year because it was lacking and it has come a long way. Even when we don’t play that well, we’re still finding ways to win games.”
Maine has allowed 2.1 goals per game in their last 10 after giving up 4.67 in its first six.
“We’ve had great goaltending. Scott [Darling] has been playing unbelievable,” said sophomore defenseman Will O’Neill.
Sophomore Darling has compiled a 1.47 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage in his last five games.
“We have a lot more depth this year and that has been huge of late. We have two power-play units that will each pick up the slack if the other isn’t [producing]. Our depth on defense has been pretty solid and [Darling] has been playing great. All those things have contributed,” said House.
The infusion of a talented freshman class has given the Bears a sizeable boost, according to the veterans.
“They’re definitely contributing more than we thought they would. It has been great,” said deKastrozza. “We’ve had great freshman classes the last two years.”
Freshmen Adam Shemansky (7 goals, 5 assists), Matt Mangene (1 & 6) and Joey Diamond (4 & 0) have been key offensive contributors; Kyle Beattie (0 & 3) has shown promise and Klas Leidermark has been a an effective defensive center while Mike Cornell, Mark Nemec and Nick Pryor have supplied useful minutes on the blue line.
The emergence of the freshman forwards and improved play from returnees like Spencer Abbott (4 & 9), Robby Dee (5 & 7), Kevin Swallow (2 & 4) and deKastrozza (2 & 4) have enabled coach Tim Whitehead to keep his top three scorers on the same line like last year.
Nyquist (11 & 13), Brian Flynn (4 & 12) and House (7 & 6) have combined for 12 goals and 15 assists in their last five games together.
“[Our line] was just about the only scoring threat last year but we have many more goal scorers this year,” said Nyquist. “That has been huge.”
Veteran defensemen O’Neill (4 & 9), Jeff Dimmen (2 & 6), Josh Van Dyk (0 & 7), Mike Banwell (2 & 2) and Ryan Hegarty (0 & 3) have chipped in offensively, also.
Maine is averaging 3.56 goals per game, ninth best in the nation and 1.36 better than a year ago, The power play is at 26.5 percent, which is fifth best.
The penalty-killing has been better of late (87 percent in the last 5 games) to improve its overall percentage (79.5).
Nyquist and House said the team is significantly quicker than last year thanks to the freshmen and speed gains made by the returnees.
“That has been a big key,” said House.
Martel earns lofty honor
University of Maine senior Laura Martel of Lewiston, the America East Striker of the Year, has become the third Black Bear to be named to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s All-Northeast Region First Team. She joins Marie-Andree Canuel (2006) and Linda Consolante (2005).
The dynamic Martel led the Bears and America East in goals with 13 and she also had one assist for 27 points.
She finished her career with 25 goals, tying her for second in that category at Maine, and three assists.